I was a kid in New York in the 1950s, watching my Dodgers on TV. Jackie Robinson had reached third base, and to an opposing pitcher that always meant big trouble.
Robinson was the first black man to play in the major leagues, breaking the color barrier in 1947. He also was one of the game's most fiery competitors an aggressive base-runner and gamer who loved to shake things up and make things happen. Anyone who saw Robinson play has to laugh when Pete Rose, the unregenerate gambler, is held up as the paragon of hustle.
To us it's no contest: Jackie wins hands down.
On this afternoon fifty years ago (there were far more day games back then) Robinson began his taunting, tantalizing routine as soon as he reached base. You knew what was coming, yet even when it did it was thrilling.
In a flurry of legs, dust and spikes, Jackie, having sensed exactly when to make his move, barreled toward the plate from third just as the pitcher began his windup. Barely avoiding the tag, Robinson did it again.
He stole home.
To see such a display, especially in real time, is to have it stamped in your consciousness one of those happy events that you then can recall at will in an endless loop of memory.
There are photographs, to be sure, of Robinson's home plate heroics he stole home an astonishing 20 times during his comparatively brief major league career. One of the most dramatic steals was in 1955, in the 8th inning of Game One of the World Series with the Yankees. He did it off Yankee ace Whitey Ford and photographer Mark Kauffman's great image shows Robinson feet first in mid-air, flying toward the solid squat form of Yankee catcher Yogi Berra. Yogi would insist for years that he made the tag, but the ump saw it differently. The Dodgers lost that game, but went on to win the series in seven, their first ever World Series victory.
That photograph, great though it is, represents only one of Jackie's home plate steals, as does Nat Fein's dramatic shot of Robinson stealing home in 1952 against the Cubs. What fine art photographer David Levinthal has done in his latest show creating yet another of the table-top worlds for which he has gained world renown is to make a photograph that represents all of Jackie Robinson's dramatic base-stealing. The Jackie Robinson depicted in this 20"x 24" Polaroid print is a toy a cold cast, painted figurine barely nine inches high. Yet when photographed with dramatic lighting in what looks for all the world like a baseball stadium, all of the emotion, all of the excitement returns: a miniature metaphor for what makes the game of baseball so riveting yet elegant; so outwardly simple yet so inwardly complex.
Creating table-top worlds has been a passion of the 54-year-old San Francisco-born Levinthal since his college days at Yale. "I started using toys and figurines as the subject matter for my art back in 1972, when I was a graduate student," Levinthal told me. [He also has fond memories as a child of watching the San Francisco Giants play in Seal Stadium, an old minor league park, in pre-Candlestick days, shortly after the Giants left New York, as did the Dodgers. Since Levinthal's father came from Brooklyn, the son became a Dodger fan and enjoyed the west coast version of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, even as the rest of us back east said the hell with them.]
"After graduation (from Yale) I was able to collaborate with my classmate Garry Trudeau on a book entitled Hitler Moves East. We worked on the project for three and a half years. The book came out in 1977 and was reprinted in 1989. During the course of this work I became intrigued at how seeming reality could be constructed from mere models. Over the more than thirty years that I have been working as an artist, I never ceased to be amazed at how much these figures and toys can tell us about ourselves."
Hitler Moves East, shot in black and white on high contrast Kodak Kodalith film, was the first of many projects Levinthal attempted to depict significant or controversial events and icons. Over the next quarter-century, Levinthal documented such diverse subjects as the American West, Modern Romance, Blackface memorabilia, tiny X-rated sex dolls and the Holocaust. In virtually every case, his medium of choice has been Polaroid film, from the tiny, square format SX-70 to now the huge one-of-a-kind imagery he can achieve with the gargantuan 20" x 24" Polaroid camera, so ungainly a piece of machinery that the price of renting one includes a technician to help make the thing go.
"I use strobes for my 20x24 work," Levinthal said, "although I should add that in the almost 18 years that I have been using the camera I have been fortunate to have always had the technical expertise of (Polaroid's) John Reuter to rely on, leaving me free to concentrate on the aesthetics of the work."
And aesthetics there are, since this is a lot more than playing with toy soldiers or dolls. For example, in his Modern Romance Series (1984-86) Levinthal creates a tawdry world of sex-for-sale, twinned with a simple human desire for contact. That he is able to do this with tiny figurines is remarkable, and also a reflection of the fact that each of us brings to bear his or her own personal experience every time we see one of Levinthal's enigmatic tableaux. [Another hugely successful element of this series is the fact that the SX-70 images that Levinthal shot were made, not with the camera aimed at the table-top set, but rather at a TV monitor, where Levinthal shot the transmitted images of his created world. The effect is that of looking at a grainy TV set in the 1950s another element that lends to these photographs an air of fatigue and sadness.]
But to someone like me, who grew up in the Bronx (both a Yankee and a Dodger fan) there was nothing but pleasure as I marveled at Levinthal's Baseball work, now on display in a small, elegant show at Conner Contemporary Art near Dupont Circle. The gallery itself can accommodate only eight of Levinthal's big lush framed Polaroids, but this was enough to make me feel as if I were in the Hall of Fame.
There's Yogi looking skyward toward a popup, Don Drysdale smoking a fastball past who knows who, Hank Aaron ready to pop another one into the seats.
And of, course, Jackie stealing home.
Levinthal said he prefers using Polaroid not only for the instant feedback it provides, but more important, for the richness of its color. Another important element, I believe, is the incredibly short focusing distance on the 20x24 camera, especially when using a long 360mm lens. This creates a very small plane of focus on each image, the result being that much of the figurine being shot is soft. Note how on the Robinson figure sharp focus falls across Jackie's chest and face, but his hands and feet are out of focus. In this case, however, the eye sees this not as softness, but as blurring caused by dramatic motion. Thus a totally stationary figure, shot with a rock steady behemoth of a camera, turns itself into a dynamic image simple because of the tools David Levinthal chose to use, and what we as viewers choose to see.
"I work with a model maker who does a lot of work for commercial photographers," Levinthal said of his elaborate sets. "We made a series of 20 to 25-inch squares, each depicting a different part of a ballfield: a home plate section, a pitcher's mound, second base, etc., The infield was a fine sand-like material that was painted on top of Foamcor boards. The grass was an Astroturf-like mat and the bases were a clay material painted white."
Thus does the oldest Hall of Famer on Levinthal's "team" Babe Ruth stand at his tiny sand and Astroturf home plate, an outstretched, out-of-focus arm gesturing toward the seats.
Is the Babe "calling" the next pitch for a home run, as legend says, or is he just announcing the strike count to taunt the pitcher.
It is the fifth inning of the third game of the Yankees-Cubs World Series at Chicago's Wrigley Field, October 1, 1932. The next pitch to Ruth produces a monstrous, Herculean wallop into the stands.
"Every muscle in my system," Ruth said later, "every sense I had, told me that I never hit a better one; that as long as I lived, nothing would ever feel as good as this one."
It was Ruth's 15th and last home run in a World Series.
The Babe says he called it.
Who am I to disagree?
David Levinthal: Baseball, Conner Contemporary Art, through May 1. 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, 2nd fl. 202-588-8750 www.connercontemporary.com.
To see more of David Levinthal's work, go to www.davidlevinthal.com.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.